The Dark Side of Fraternity and the Fears That Take Us There

I am a Star Wars nerd, and proud of it. I grew up with the original trilogy and still have the boxes of toys and action figures to prove it. Tonight I take my sons to see the newest installment and I'm stoked. While as a child I appreciated Star Wars more for its action and adventure, as an adult, I can better see the deeper themes it conveys. 

The Star Wars canon is based upon the idea that there is a Force that binds the galaxy. That Force can be used for good, as it is by the Jedi, or it can be used for evil, as it is by the Sith. The evil use of the Force is called the dark side. It's power is drawn from emotions such as fear, anger, and hatred. Those who go to the dark side are often tempted there because of their inability to handle such emotions and by the promise of significant power. The dark side is not a natural state of being, but the inability to foster positive emotions of peace, justice, and kindness combined with the inability to control negative emotions makes the lure of the dark side difficult to avoid.

Kind of sounds like the real human experience, doesn't it? And the fraternity experience as well.

If there is a Force that binds together the fraternal life, then there is also a light and dark side. What seems apparent, especially in light of recent headlines, is that too many of our brothers and sisters are being drawn to the dark side. Because of that, they use fraternity as a vehicle for their worst impulses and wreak damage upon it as they go. 

But like in Star Wars, I believe that the dark side is unnatural, which means there are reasons why someone would be drawn there. 

Like Master Yoda, I believe it is about fear. The Jedi Master once told his pupil Luke Skywalker:
“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
I believe there are three primary fears that fraternity and sorority members all have as they enter the experience, and how they address or manage those fears determines if they find the light or dark side of fraternity life.

Fear of Vulnerability
Perhaps one of our greatest fears in life, as well as in fraternity, is the fear of vulnerability. It's what leads us to be scared of public speaking, hesitant to be open with our emotions, and fearful of being rejected by those we admire. This avoidance of vulnerability leads us to build walls around ourselves and to live a carefully manicured life.

To be vulnerable with our brothers or sisters means that we are honest with our emotions, open with our challenges, and willing to admit our mistakes. It means inviting deep conversations about life, and a desire to explore our inner self through conversations with others. Bestselling leadership author Patrick Lencioni lists vulnerability as the number one thing necessary for teams to be successful.

The man or woman in your organization who fears vulnerability is the one who makes up for it by trying to be always funny, or always cool. He or she probably is recognized by everyone, but truly known by no one. It might be hard to describe his/her life outside of the fraternity, or really describe anything other than surface-oriented traits. Their insecurities are masked by indulgences that look like a cry for self-discovery. I know this fear, and almost all of us deal with it.

Fear of Accountability
The fear of accountability doesn't simply mean fear of being caught doing something wrong, just like a 4-year-old hides the fact that he stole a cookie from the jar. It goes a little deeper than that. It really means fear of being called to be a better man/woman than we already believe ourselves to be. It means not wanting to face the fact that to strengthen our character means doing really hard work and being open to those we love holding a mirror to our faces and pushing us to be something more.

The fraternity experience is expertly designed for those who want to be better versions of themselves. Not only does it proactively do this through training, education, and exposure to life-guiding values, but living life in such close proximity to others means that our flaws will likely be exposed. If the fraternity life is lived well, there is conflict (internally and externally) that puts our character on full display. Our brothers and sisters then are uniquely positioned to challenge us, question us, and hold us accountable to who we want to be.

The man or woman in your organization who ignores the fraternity experience as one in which they can become better likely struggles to fully embrace it. These may be your disengaged members, or the ones who start strong but never progress to become the members others thought they would be. They may grow to see fraternity as only a vehicle for enjoyment, and treat it as such. They are afraid to be criticized for their thoughts or actions, and thus the easier choice is to drift into the shadows.

Fear of Acceptance
As human beings, we all want to be accepted and appreciated. It's a chief reason why so many of us seek out organizations - to achieve that sense of belonging. But we are scared that our true selves, our personalities, our idiosyncrasies, and our personal traits are not good enough to be accepted. We tell ourselves that we should instead model the behavior of others and wear their faces instead.

This fear of acceptance leads us to conformity. And in today's fraternity, unfortunately, conformity looks an awful lot like the dark side. It's more normal to respect the social calendar more than the Ritual. It's more normal to treat pledges or younger members as neophytes instead of equals. It's more normal to be apathetic instead of raising one's hand to serve.

When we fear acceptance, then we may choose to live fraternity as others do, instead of listening to our inner voice. You can probably see how all of these fears are linked. If we aren't vulnerable, then we aren't placing our true selves forward to be accepted. And because of that, we may discount how much power the fraternity experience has to make our true selves even better.

If you do not believe that you can ever truly be accepted in your fraternity for who you authentically are, and this has been tested, then it's time to find another.

Those who are able to conquer (not likely), or manage (more likely) these fears are those who will find the strength in the light side. It starts with understanding them, and acknowledging that it's normal and appropriate to have all of these fears. And then, deciding to be vulnerable, to be held accountable, and to seek acceptance for your authentic self.

If we are too proud to acknowledge these fears in ourselves, and thus ignore how much they are controlling our destinies, then the dark side will come beckoning. 

May the Force be with you.


5 Signs Your Fraternity is a Thick Organization

"Some organizations are thick, and some are thin. Some leave a mark on you, and some you pass through with scarcely a memory."
- David Brooks

It seems to be all the rage right now for campuses to ban, either by administrative fiat or IFC resolution, fraternity activities. The common reason given is for the Greek community to have time and space for soul-searching. So allow me to suggest a framework by which fraternities and sororities can adequately search their souls. 

A fraternity mentor of mine, John Bloom, shared with me an outstanding column by David Brooks of the New York Times. In this article, Brooks defines what it means to be a "thick" organization, mostly as one that leaves a mark on you. He adds other criteria, such as:
  • An organization that "becomes a part of the person's identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart, and soul."
  • One with a set of rituals.
  • One with shared tasks, that often involve members looking out for one another.
  • Organizations that "tell and retell a sacred origin story about themselves."
  • One with a common ideal.
  • Possession of an "idiosyncratic local culture" that differentiates them from other organizations.
As I read through his criteria, the idea of fraternity emerged in my mind. Fraternal organizations are ripe to become thick experiences for their members because they inherently have all of those traits listed above. One could say that the longevity of the fraternity movement in this country can be attributed to how "thick" these organizations can be. University administrators certainly know that when they contemplate the future of fraternities on their campuses, they are dealing with very significant entities that can offer thick experiences.

And yet, so many of our members have thin experiences instead. Fraternity becomes something they did for a short while, and their memories get packed away in some box they store in their attic. Fraternity for many is only about the few friendships they've held on to, instead of a deep and holistic values-based and life-directing experience. And because of that, they are less willing to care for these organizations as they experience them and thus are more willing to participate in damaging them.

Why should you care to make your fraternity a thick organization? There would likely be some strong tangible benefits such as stronger alumni engagement and more members inspired to contribute more. The intangibles, such as a richer and more fulfilling experience, would almost definitely show up as well.

Overall, if we can make our fraternities be the thick organizations they are destined to be, then many of the problems that lead to all-university bans and suspensions will go away.

So, take Brooks' criteria as the base for a thick organization, what would be evidence that this base was maximized to build a truly special fraternity? Here might be some indicators that your fraternity is thick:
  1. Members discuss the fraternity in terms of how it has become a part of their identity, and not just something they are involved with. The values of the fraternity become a regular part of jargon used when members talk about what fraternity means to them. And, the ideals of the fraternity become included in how members describe their own aspirations for the kinds of individuals they hope to be.
  2. Alumni engagement is substantial, meaning their involvement is directed towards ensuring a strong future for the chapter, and not just based in reliving the good old days. Alumni who have experienced a thick fraternity will likely donate more time and money to the organization and see themselves in a mentoring role for the current undergraduates.
  3. Involvement of Juniors is strong. I've become convinced that we will never get the devoted attention of Seniors because they are in a period of life transition that focuses their energy elsewhere. I would judge a thick organization by what its Juniors are doing. Are they filling important leadership roles, attending events and activities, strongly involved in recruitment, and finding ways to represent their chapter elsewhere on campus. If interest starts to wane in the Junior year, it shows that the organization is only thick for a short period of time, which means it really isn't thick at all.
  4. An observer would label your recruitment efforts are relational. Thin organizations master the art of the sales pitch and the show, since that's all they can rely upon. Thick organizations build their ranks through conversation and authentic relationships. Hardly any training or preparation is needed because members of thick organizations can speak from the heart. When this happens, only those seeking thick experiences will want to join and that benefits us all.
  5. Thick organizations are not cyclical. Many fraternities and sororities have peaks and valleys over time - in membership and campus influence. Being so turbulent in success means that the chapter is defined by who members are in specific periods of time, and not by the strength of its rituals and common ideals. Sure, thick organizations can struggle and they are not immune to downturns. However, those downturns are often episodic and mended fairly quickly. While thin chapter A is on-again, off-again over the period of 20 years, thick chapter B is almost always on, with only a few blips along the way.
There are many different ways you can judge the value and strength of your fraternity, especially in its undergraduate form. I really like Brooks' terminology and definitions because you can really feel them - thick versus thin.

Just like a thick sheet of ice can withstand a lot of pressure and weight, thick organizations will remain solid and standing, even when all the bans and suspensions go away.

A Serious IFC (Part 2)

In the last post, I described 5 reasons why many IFCs are not taken seriously. This week, my goal is to provide ten steps that any IFC can take to gain more credibility. There are many more answers than the ones I will give below, and the ones I give could use more explanation than I have room to provide. If you want any further details on my ideas, feel free to ask questions in the comment section or contact me directly. Here we go…

1: Define Your Purpose
If the purpose of your IFC is in question, then your mission as a council for the next year is to define it. If you accomplish nothing as an IFC except to agree upon a purpose (sometimes conveyed as a mission statement or statement of purpose), you still will move mountains. It’s that important. I encourage you to appoint a small task force of IFC delegates and officers to take on this task. This task force should work off a 6-month timeline, and do some or all of the following:
  • Review current documents, including the constitution, for evidence of purpose and mission.
  • Interview major stakeholders, such as fraternity officers and members, campus administrators, and other governing council officers.
  • Investigate IFC mission statements from peer institutions.
  • Consult resources available from the NIC, AFLV, and other entities.
  • Draft a 1-2 page document describing the findings and proposing a new statement of purpose for the IFC. The full IFC then discusses and debates the document.
Having a defined purpose can then inform how you structure committees, officer positions, and agendas for the IFC meetings.

2: Chart the Course

I’m a big fan of retreats to start a new era. It’s a great time for trust-building and vision-casting. The retreat can focus the group on the issues that matter to the fraternity system. Develop a list of 6-8 strategic priorities for the IFC. Such priorities could include: (a) increase fraternity membership, (b) update and ratify the IFC constitution, (c) develop a stronger working relationship with other governing councils, (d) build relationships with senior administrators, (e) provide more education and resources for chapter officers, etc. Your journey as an IFC will be easier with a map.

3: Get the Right People in the Room
In my opinion, the right people to attend IFC meetings and represent their chapters are the chapter presidents. I know how busy a chapter president is, but serving as an ambassador for the chapter, representing member interests, and building stronger interfraternal relationships are all part of his job description. He is the right person for the job.

4: Set a Professional Meeting Environment
I know a serious IFC when I see one. So do your delegates and stakeholders. If they visited your meeting, what would they experience and see? The most serious IFCs among us take intentional steps to ensure a professional environment for their meetings.

This includes location. Try to avoid the dingy, chalky classroom on the 3rd floor of some random academic building. It kills creativity. Also avoid the large lecture hall or auditorium, for these spaces inhibit natural conversation. Ideally, find a big open room in a central location, in which you can set long tables in a square, so that the delegates can all see each other. Trust me, it helps.

When the first delegate arrives, the room should be set and ready to go. Ideally, IFC officers are already present, floating around the room and greeting attendees. Light refreshments can’t hurt. Provide each delegate with a name placard that lists their first and last name, and their fraternity affiliation (or IFC officer position). These guys are going to be engaged in important debates – it helps if they can call each other by name.

Finally - call me old-fashioned, but shorts, ballcaps, and sandals will give one kind of atmosphere, and shirts, ties, and badges will give you another. I like the latter.

5: Make the Meetings Valuable
Serious IFCs spend time having thoughtful discussion and debate about the biggest issues confronting the fraternity system. In order to make space for this, reduce the amount of time spent giving reports and making announcements. For instance, items that do not require discussion can be e-mailed in advance, or distributed as handouts.

Once you’ve made the time, now you can talk about what matters. However, without some structure, delegates will simply stare at each other. One idea is to take the strategic priorities you develop at the retreat, assign a small task force of IFC delegates and officers to investigate and make recommendations on each priority, and then spend each meeting addressing a different priority. Each task force can present recommendations and lead the discussion (which is a great way to share leadership).

You may need to work up to this, but I believe that 75% of each IFC meeting should be spent discussing system-wide issues and strategic direction. IFC members should come prepared to be intellectually challenged by complex and consequential questions.

6: Take a Stand
While an IFC should always strive to be proactive, there will be times when a problem or issue is forced upon you. You may need to fight. For example, what if your host campus wanted to defer recruitment until the sophomore year? Many IFCs would wallow in self-pity while the policy changes. Be stronger than that. Start by passing a resolution in the IFC meeting condemning the new policy. Send the resolution, with a cover letter by the IFC president, to relevant campus administrators. Next, set up meetings with the administrators in order to share the resolution and the IFC’s concerns. Be persistent, but courteous. Involve external entities such as alumni, national offices, and the NIC. These are defining moments for a representative group like an IFC, and you’ll be remembered most for how you handle them. Be a champion for the fraternity system. Perhaps a quote from Teddy Roosevelt is appropriate:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood..."

7: Do an IFC Road Show
In order to increase visibility, send IFC officers out to chapter meetings at the start of each semester. The goal should be to share with the chapter members a few of the major IFC initiatives and issues. In addition, it’s a good time to listen to needs and concerns from the general members.

8: Learn the Power of the Written Letter
Yes, we live in an e-mail and social media culture. It’s revolutionized how we do business and communicate with each other. Fine. I encourage you to break from the norm every now and then, and learn the power of the personalized letter. Invest in a stack of IFC letterhead, IFC envelopes, and a nice blue pen. Whenever a fraternity wins a national award, send them a letter. If a chapter receives publicity for a service project, send them a letter. Founders Day for one of your chapters? Send them a letter. Consider copying the Greek Advisor and the Chapter Advisor. It doesn’t take a lot of time, and the fraternity that receives the letter will likely post it on a bulletin board. That’s where important letters from important people typically go.

9: Have More Personalized Conversations
At the start of the new IFC year (new officers and delegates), the IFC President should set aside time to meet with the president of each fraternity represented on the IFC. If possible, include other IFC officers as well. The purpose of this meeting is for the IFC President to do 2 things: (1) build rapport, and (2) listen. Here is a good list of questions to start with:
  • What are your hopes and aspirations for your chapter?
  • How can the IFC help you achieve these aspirations?
  • What do you expect from the IFC in general?
  • How do you think your contributions can make the IFC stronger?
  • What priorities should the IFC address this year?

10: Set Up Regular Meetings with Senior Administrators

The IFC President and Officers should establish regular standing meetings with senior administrators. It is important that these meetings be proactive and positive, and generally accomplish 3 things: (1) inform the administrators of recent IFC and chapter accomplishments, (2) share concerns and questions from the delegates, and (3) listen to the needs and perspectives of the administrators. Such administrators would include: the President, the Vice President of Student Affairs, the Dean of Students, the Director of Housing (if applicable), and the Provost. These meetings may only occur once a semester, and that’s okay (unless there is an urgent issue). It’s about reminding them that you’re here and working to build a stronger fraternity system. By building a friendly and professional relationship, they are more likely to listen to you when it matters most.

Those are several of my ideas and I hope you've found them helpful. I plan to build out some of them in future posts. Please share your ideas in the comments section below.

If the fraternity movement is to succeed, it needs strong, active, and credible IFCs to help steer the ship. Here's your chance to lead. Seriously.

A Serious IFC

When used correctly, the Interfraternity Council can be one of the most dynamic, forward-thinking, credible, and professional organizations on any campus. At many colleges and universities, however, the general sentiment is that the IFC is a “joke.” There is typically no one person to blame for this, and most IFC officers I talk with are working very hard to reverse this attitude. An unserious IFC likely didn’t lose its credibility overnight, and it will also take time to make it better.

From my observations and work with IFCs, here are what I see as the biggest reasons many of them lack credibility:

Reason #1: The Meetings Are a Waste of Time
No – they’re not just a waste of time, they are a colossal waste of time. Watching Sharknado 3 each week for an entire year would be more productive. Of course, that would make each meeting longer, by about 1 hour and 45 minutes. If your IFC meeting agenda resembles this: (1) Call to Order, (2) Roll Call, (3) Officer Reports, (4) Announcements, (5) Adjourn, then your delegates may not take it very seriously. If everything that happens in your meeting could happen quicker and more effectively through Twitter, then you have a problem.

Reason #2: The Wrong People Are in the Room
I love sharing leadership. I love that we have officer positions for about everything in Greek-letter organizations (I’m talking to you Co-Assistant Snapchat Chair). It’s fun and adds to our uniqueness. But, there is one position I wouldn’t mind eliminating – the IFC delegate. It’s true – on some campuses and in some chapters, this position is held in high regard and taken very seriously. However, more often than not, this position is one of the last to be filled and desired by the eventual recipient as much as he would desire the Bird Flu. The IFC should be the place where the future direction of the fraternity system is charted, and most chapters are sending the poor freshman who thought that IFC was internet slang for “In-Fashion Clothes.”

Reason #3: “What Exactly Do They Do?”
Many IFCs are invisible. Nobody really knows that they exist. Or, if they are aware of the IFC, they still don’t know what they do. This is true for random students and senior administrators alike. If a random person were asked about the IFC, and the response is a shrug, questioning look, or “huh?” then you may not be seen as serious. The answer isn’t a publicity or marketing blitz – it’s becoming important enough to notice. Would you notice a meteor if it were a million light years away and looked like some random star in the sky? Probably not. What if that meteor was 100 yards away and coming right at you? Now you notice it. In many cases, we’ve allowed our IFCs to just be one little star within a sky that has millions. It’s time we start doing important work and get noticed.

Reason #4: Lack of Purpose
Invisibility can also be a signal for a deeper issue – lack of purpose. Let’s face it, many IFC officers and delegates are also unaware of what the IFC does and why it exists. That’s because we are unsure of our purpose. Think about it this way – if your IFC were to hibernate for 12 months, would anyone notice? Would the fraternity system be harmed by your absence? If your answer is “no,” then wrestle with this question – why is your IFC even here? Ask that question at your next IFC meeting and see what happens. You will likely get many different responses, and some confused looks. Defining a purpose is important. Making that purpose significant and inspiring is essential. This is work that you need to do for your particular IFC, but a good model is the NIC. The NIC’s purpose is to Advocate, Collaborate, and Educate. Sounds like a good one for an IFC as well.

Reason #5: The Wimp Factor
Nothing against wimps, but don’t be one. It kills credibility because it diminishes respect. Nobody respected George McFly until he stood up for Lorraine and laid out Biff. How often does your IFC take a stand? Do the chapters view the IFC as a champion for their rights? When some entity enacts a new policy that fraternities view as unjust, who speaks on their behalf? People take seriously those who they can rely upon, and those who are on their side. Conversely, how can you ever take seriously someone who always gets rolled over? Don't be a "yes man." Don't be a puppet. Be George McFly – the post “get your damn hands off her" George McFly.
Hey you…get your damn hands off her! sound bite

What do you think? Are there other reasons I haven't considered? 

This post was originally published in April 2010 and has been updated.

If You Always Look for Problems, That’s Always What You’ll Find

The time is upon us when thousands of fraternity and sorority members will return to campus and begin another year.  Many of those groups will do the smart thing and have a retreat to plan out the year and set goals.  At the minimum, almost all fraternity and sorority leaders will think about questions like: what do we need to do to reach our potential?  To achieve excellence?

This post isn’t meant to answer those questions, for each situation is unique.  Rather, let me offer you some thoughts on how you get to those answers.

Fraternity and sorority life is a “problems-based” industry.  We are constantly talking about problems.  We seem to always be focused like a laser on what’s wrong with us and what needs to be fixed. 

It can be depressing.  I only have my hunches to back this up, but I think one of the reasons there is so much turnover in campus Greek advising is that individuals just get sick and tired of the constant negativity. 

I don’t believe that we can ignore our problems, especially the ones that could jeopardize our future in an instant.  But, what if we focused on our problems just a little bit less?  You might ask, well what would we focus on instead?

We would focus on what’s working.

Retreats that Work

Man, I love retreats. In terms of team dynamics and organizational flow, there may be nothing better. My staff team probably wishes I didn't love them as much as I do.

In an environment that is constantly shifting and changing, retreats are needed more than ever. They allow us to refocus on our mission and objectives. They can also unplug us from the gadgets that rule our lives. There is something about an easel pad, markers, and honest eye-to-eye conversation that is just simply healthy.
Now, retreats can also be a phenomenal waste of time. They require thoughtful planning in order to be effective. Below are five points I’ve learned about retreats over the years, and I encourage you to add your own.

Point #1: The retreat needs to be productive.
A retreat should never be all about play. A retreat can be fun, but it’s a work day. Going to the local amusement park is not a retreat. If your supply list includes bathing suits, koozies, and suntan lotion, it’s also not a retreat. A retreat is a learning activity, and should be treated as such. It’s out-of-the-classroom learning, so it is indeed different in many ways. But it’s still generally an intellectual exercise. 

A brotherhood- or sisterhood-building social activity (such as rafting, camping, theme park, etc.) is fine, but “social activity” describes them accurately. Reserve “retreat” for the times in which participants are focused, ready to roll up their sleeves, and prepared to chart a better future for the organization. This doesn’t mean you sacrifice the teambuilding aspect. Don’t assume that brotherhood or sisterhood is built only through social events. In fact, the greatest teams are forged through collective action towards shared objectives. In other words, your “working” retreat will build greater connections and teamwork than any social activity could.

Point #2: It’s called a “retreat” for a reason. Go someplace different.
Brain science has proven that a change in venue can lead to a change in perspective. Retreats work best when participants feel that it is a special event, worthy of a different level of participation and thinking. A different venue can contribute to this feeling. Stay away from your chapter house, a classroom, or a meeting room in the student union. These are too ordinary. I personally encourage you to consider camps or other settings that incorporate nature. These types of venues can add a layer of calm and peacefulness to the event.
Any of the following are good options: Official retreat/conference centers, Boy Scout/Girl Scout/FFA/YMCA/Kiwanis camps, church facilities, restaurants with a unique feel, state parks, etc.

Cost might be a concern, but planning well advance will give you more options. Camps and parks are typically cheaper. Also consider distance and transportation when selecting a site.

Point #3: Your retreat needs a purpose.
Why do you need a retreat? Why is it being considered? What do you need to accomplish?
  • Identify and get problems out in the open.
  • Promote communication among all members.
  • Establish common goals and objectives.
  • Identify and relate the philosophy of the organization.
  • Transition new officers into their positions.
  • Have the members get to know each other on a deeper level.
  • Motivation; re-centering on purpose.
  • Discussion of values/Ritual.
Thinking about this beforehand will help you organize a retreat that best suits the members' needs. You could also plan a retreat that concentrates on one critical function of the organization, such as:
  • Recruitment Preparation - Educating members on effective recruitment and setting group recruitment goals.
  • Values Clarification - Helping participants understand themselves and others.
  • Leadership Development - Developing leadership skills to promote better committee members, committee chairs, or officers.
  • Risk Management - Teaching, clarifying, and gaining agreement on policies and procedures.
  • Scholastic Goal Setting - Giving members an opportunity to set personal and group goals in the area of academic achievement.
  • Pre/Post Initiation - Offering an opportunity for members to fully understand the impact of the oaths they are about to or have just taken.
  • Alumni Relations - Setting goals for improved alumni relations and programs. Gather suggestions from alumni or invite alumni to participate in this program.

Point #4: Beware the curse of the comfy couches.
Your retreat location should be comfortable, but that doesn’t mean you should sit all day. Full-day retreats commonly suffer from group malaise after lunch and as the afternoon carries on. Do as much as you can to make the retreat interactive, instead of a just a rotation of talking heads. Here are a couple of common tools for adding interactivity to a program:
  • The Partner Share: Instead of discussing a question or idea with the full group, ask participants to first talk about it with a fellow participant. This gives the quieter members a chance to share their ideas. After a few minutes, open it up for a larger discussion. You’ll likely get more and better responses.
  • The Small Group: Having ideas discussed in smaller groups of 5-8 participants works for many of the same reasons given above for the partner share. However, you can ask the small groups to accomplish more, such as solving one component of a larger question. For instance, if you are discussing academic achievement in the organization, you might assign smaller groups each of the following issues to discuss and make recommendations for: (1) recognizing academic achievement, (b) revising chapter academic standards, (c) utilizing campus resources, (d) programs to encourage academic success. You could also use small groups to teach a big topic, such as risk management policies. Assign small groups portions of the policies to review and teach back to the larger group in creative ways.
Breaking into smaller groups is also a great way to split up pledge classes, age groups, cliques, officers, new members, etc., which can add to the teambuilding element of the retreat.
Although they are often a target of complaints and groans, teambuilders and icebreakers can be effective for setting up a positive learning environment as well. You may get some evil glares from the participants, but weigh that against the boredom and lethargy that comes from inactivity. There are thousands of books and websites with ideas for teambuilders. The NIC resource “Brotherhood Building Activities” is one to add to your library, if it’s not already there. Also, your advisors and headquarters staff likely have a lot of options to share with you.

Point #5: You don’t need to do this alone.
The life of a Fraternity/Sorority Advisor can often be a constant deluge of negativity. They are always putting out fires and reacting to unfortunate incidents. Imagine a chapter leader walking into their office and inviting them to help facilitate a proactive retreat intent on building a stronger future for the fraternity or sorority. That’s the kind of work they want to be doing! The basic point is this – you have several caring individuals who would be willing to help you plan and implement the retreat. All you need to do is ask.

If you have a budget, there also many talented professional facilitators available to you.
I hope this has been helpful in some way. Leading, managing, and growing an organization like a fraternity or sorority is hard work. Going at it every single day can wear down even the greatest chapter. The strongest organizations know that in order to keep up their strength for the fight, on occasion, it’s necessary to retreat. Good luck!

Advisor's Lament

Only 2 weeks left…

June cannot come soon enough.


Tired of the constant traffic in my office,

Tired of sorting through 100 e-mails a day.

I’ve had enough retreats, meetings, and programs to last me

The rest of my career.

I can’t remember what life was like

Before 9pm meetings,

And working Saturdays.

Ugh that freakin' end of year report!


It’s finals week!

The students won’t bother me now.

Only five voice-mails this morning!

Did I remember to send those cards to the graduating seniors?

Time to start on those 10 rec letters that were due last week.

It’s graduation day!

They’re almost gone!

“It’s nice to meet you Mrs. Johnson – your son was an outstanding president.”

What?? A blowout party where?? They destroyed what??

Can’t they just go home!


They’re gone.

Summer has begun!

The traffic in town is so much better.

Starbucks is calm.

At last it’s quiet here.

Only 10 e-mails today!

It’s so relaxing…so serene…so…


It just doesn't feel right around here.


And need them to hurry back.

August cannot come soon enough.

This post was originally posted in June 2009 and has been updated

A Fraternity to Believe In

To be or not to be…excellent. That is the question. I invite you to enjoy this classic clip from Wayne’s World 2, featuring the late Charlton Heston, noted for being one of the best actors of all time:

This scene has great lessons for our organizations. We have just become too comfortable with mediocrity. Let’s face it, many of our organizations are striving to just reach mediocrity.

It’s easy to see in movies when actors or actresses are just “mailing it in.” The same is true for fraternities and sororities. It’s those groups that shuffle around from obligation to obligation, seemingly uninterested and lethargic. It’s the opposite of watching a master at work – someone who wants to, who needs to – be the greatest at their chosen craft. It’s whoever that first guy was vs. Charlton Heston.

It begs the question, however, what “being your best” or “performing at peak level” really means for fraternities and sororities.

Is being excellent as a fraternity winning campus competitions? That’s a pretty superficial measure I think. What about winning the highest honors from your national fraternity? I wonder if sometimes that is just a measure of one’s ability to write an application.

How about Ritual? Is living by the teachings of your Ritual achieving excellence as a fraternity? Yes – if excellence is doing exactly what’s expected of you.

Excellence can include all of these things, but they still don’t say enough. There seems to be an intangible quality to excellence, resulting in the old “I know it when I see it” test.

How about if excellence were this: getting others to believe in you. What if it meant performing in a manner that goes so far above an expected standard, that you become an aspiration for others?

Consider three sororities on a given campus. When interviewed about the first one, the university President states: “I like that sorority.” On the second, he comments “I trust that sorority.” On the third, he remarks “I believe in that sorority.” Each sorority is regarded as outstanding, but only one is excellent. It’s the one that changes the President’s perspective from “they simply exist” to “I want them to exist.” Or even, “I need them to exist.”

When someone like Charlton Heston steps in front of the camera, we believe in him. We know that a good performance will follow. In that scene, we wanted him in that role.

If you can get people – ranging from recruits to advisors – to say that they believe in you, then you know that you’re performing at a high level. And by the way, I can believe in a fraternity even if they don’t win a single Greek Week event, so collectively we need to adjust what excellence really means.

So, what are you doing as an organization that would cause someone to say that they believe in you? Is your performance worth watching? Imagine the audience is filled with your founders, great alumni of the past, campus administrators, parents, etc. Would they stand and cheer for you? Would your performance move them to tears? Or, would they rather yank your fraternity and find a better stand-in?

When you believe in something, you protect it. You share it with others. It becomes a rock for you. It’s the same for how we cherish our own Rituals. What if others regarded fraternities as the “Ritual books” for the rest of society? As the place to turn to for leadership, scholarship, service, and other values.

That’s more than taking home a trophy. That’s knowing that you matter. Undeniably.

How much better would the fraternity movement, our organizations, and our members be if we no longer sought to just be tolerated, or liked, or accepted? What if we sought to be an aspiration for others? To do so much good that those around us could not avoid the desire to believe in us and what we’re doing. That would be, as they say in Wayne's World, excellent!

As Universities Grow Soft, Fraternities Must Stay Tough

Some headlines within the last couple of years:
SFGate: UC Berkeley orders cancellation of Ann Coulter speech
I’m worried about what’s happening to colleges and universities and their missions to prepare students for a productive and consequential life. I know it’s easy to react to headlines and think it’s a systemic problem, when maybe it’s not, but regardless, it’s worth discussing.

For me colleges and universities are places in which people should be toughened, strengthened, and their skin made thicker.  They are not places in which students should emerge softer, scared of their own shadows, or unable to deal with difficult conversations.

After all, college is what stands between a high school “kid” and a real world “adult.”

This is not to say that eyes should not be opened or that a wider view of life should not be unveiled. I believe firmly that colleges and universities fulfill an essential role in our society if their graduates emerge with a greater understanding of and appreciation for human differences. 

But why then, is a speech by an environmentalist or a human rights advocate in the campus setting okay, but a conservative political thinker is not okay?

I get this sense that our society is shifting to a K-16 education system, which is problematic on a couple of fronts. First, focusing on a college as a necessity leaves behind a big population of students. Secondly, it fools us into believing that college students should still live underneath the safe school umbrella that was held over their heads in high school.

It wasn’t that long ago in human history that 18 year-olds were managing an entire homestead, working in a factory, and/or dealing with life and death adult issues on a routine basis.  Even today, there are 18-year-olds that strap on the uniform of our country and go into the depths of hell on our behalf.

And yet, the 18-year-olds (even 22-year-olds) living in their well-manicured and heavily-resourced comfortable campus communities can’t be exposed to the ideas of Ann Coulter?

A caveat - in the real world, there are places in which people that feel persecuted or endangered can go to seek solace and support. Campuses should have these too. From what I've read (I accept that's not always the best research strategy) it seems that the safe place idea is becoming so wide and distributed, that it doesn't mean what it should and is open to being mocked.  It now means shelter from opposing viewpoints, as opposed to support networks for those who feel truly threatened. 

This world is tough. Living here on this rock takes resolve and grit and determination. If we are to solve our greatest social challenges, we need strength. The world overall is not a safe space, and it’s inhabitants must be able to operate within it.

Sure, it takes courage to voice an opinion.  But it also takes courage to live with and work alongside other human beings that think your opinion is wrong and be okay with that. 

So where does fraternity fit? I've said before that I believe fraternities to be the one remaining place on a college campus where real leadership is learned and practiced. Why? Because, for the most part, fraternities are still self-governed entities without a lot of micromanaging by advisors (although this is in jeopardy as well). In addition to being this practical, real-life laboratory of leadership, fraternities can and should remain places where free speech is allowed, opinions are freely shared, and personal animosities are managed through conversation and not heavy-handed silencing. A fraternity should be as free and open as the public square, consequences be damned.

But here's the thing...the goal of silencing certain speakers or creating safe spaces is to further acceptance and inclusivity.  It's a well-intentioned goal but the tactics are ineffective, emotionally-driven, and create the opposite result. However, the greater goal can still be achieved by actually fostering environments where issues are hammered out, debate is encouraged, new perspectives are awakened, and more. These are the environments that fraternities are ripe to produce.  They may not be safe spaces per se, but they will be educational ones.  

And, remember, education is the ultimate purpose for institutions of higher education.

To summarize, by being a sanctuary on the modern college campus for free speech and free expression of ideas, today's college fraternity can provide an important contribution to the goal of creating a more accepting and inclusive society.  Not a bad way to frame our continued relevance, huh?

Here are some quick ideas:
  • Open up your fraternity house doors for a series of conversations on important issues of the day. When I was an undergraduate at Miami, the IFC held "dessert and dialogue" sessions at chapter facilities.  We would invite two (or more) sides of an important political hot-button issue to debate it in front of students and then field questions.
  • This sounds terribly old-fashioned, but if you have a chapter facility, be sure you're getting one local and one national newspaper delivered. Throw in a few magazines such as Time, Newsweek, etc. You might be surprised at how access to materials like this can lead to simple (and impactful) discussions around the dinner table.
  • Before rush/recruitment season begins, devote time as a chapter to have a discussion around the importance of looking for diversity of all kinds in the potential members. Lay it out plain: we do not select members based on their political viewpoints, religious ideologies, race, sexual orientation, and so forth. We select them based upon their commitment to our values, and our belief in how much and in what ways they can make the chapter stronger.
  • Chapter leaders should stay observant of how dialogue and discussion takes place in the chapter. Acknowledge and show appreciation for those moments when brothers disagree (even if tempers flare) as long as they continue to respect each other after the fact. 
  • Be a leading organization on your campus for free speech. Support campus efforts to bring a wide variance of viewpoints by attending speakers, diversity awareness sessions, rallies and marches in large numbers.

By doing things like this, and ensuring that your fraternity chapter environment is not devoid of the true stuff of the real world - debate, disagreements, and tense discussions - then fraternity members all over will emerge from higher education as the most prepared to make it in this world...and make the world better too.